Artists Court Tourist Dollars

The Arts Club Theatre Company derives less than five percent of its revenue
from tourism dollars.

On June 12, a group of optimistic artists, cultural workers, and educators assembled in Gastown for a tour of the premises at 142 Water Street and began brainstorming about how the 112,000-square-foot city-owned space could be transformed into an “arts experience centre”. As the site of the defunct Storyeum tourist attraction, the Water Street address comes with some heavy baggage. Last August, the massive underground museum/theatre complex filed for bankruptcy protection, owing over $6 million to creditors. It closed its doors for good in October 2006, just two years after unveiling to great fanfare in June 2004, following a $22-million investment by private donors and the City of Vancouver. It was a spectacular failure: instead of the one million annual visitors it had promised to attract, only 200,000 a year actually materialized.

Would an arts experience centre fare better? Roger Chilton, chair of the Downtown Vancouver Association’s arts and culture forum and organizer of the June 12 event, thinks it could. “The idea of…taking the space and having it be a focal point to draw attention to the arts and cultures of this community is a terrific opportunity,” the marketing and communications consultant enthuses over coffee at his Richards Street townhouse. “If we want to be known as the city of arts and cultures, we could easily do that.”

As almost anyone in the local arts community will tell you, the truth is that Vancouver’s reputation as a cultural destination could use a boost. John Orysik, media director and cofounder of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, which is putting on the 22nd annual Vancouver International Jazz Festival this summer, chafes a little when asked about the city’s international standing on the cultural stage. “The city already has an international reputation as a beautiful city, but culturally that recognition has been lagging,” he says. “You can get people to come here and enjoy the mountains and the water and they can go look at bears in Cypress Park, but what do you do when you’re not kayaking and snowboarding and fishing?…This image–not just of Vancouver, but of Canada–has been perpetuated just so much: Mounties, beavers, mountains.”

Leila Getz, founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, agrees. “We spent so many years talking about Vancouver as a city of rivers and mountains and all of that. It’s going to take a long time to change,” she notes.

According to Orysik, between 15 and 20 percent of jazz-festival attendees come from outside the Lower Mainland, thanks largely to his own efforts to publicize the festival with press visits to cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. Agencies like Tourism Vancouver and Tourism British Columbia, he says, are only now beginning to understand the importance of culture in attracting visitors, but still aren’t giving it the emphasis it deserves. “Culture should be at the heart of the package,” he insists. “It shouldn’t be just a frill or an afterthought, but should be an integral part of a tourism initiative.”

Sarah Kirby Yung, director of marketing and corporate sponsorship with Tourism Vancouver, insists that’s happening. “It [culture] is a very important part of selling the destination,” she says. For the past five years, she notes, Tourism Vancouver has operated Tickets Tonight, a community box office that offers half-price, day-of tickets. The agency also offers a variety of packages to visitors that can include discount tickets to cultural events in the city. Organizations have to sign on to be involved in those promotions, and a Tourism Vancouver membership is required to get in on the agency’s direct-to-consumer marketing. That involves a fee, but Kirby Yung says the agency does not publicize its membership rates.

Howard Jang, general manager of the Arts Club Theatre, is also a member of Tourism Vancouver’s board of directors. Unlike Kirby Yung, he admits, “Vancouver as a cultural destination is not the number one reason people tend to come here.” Less than five percent of the Arts Club’s gross revenue comes from tourist dollars, Jang estimates, despite the company’s Tourism Vancouver membership.

With his limited marketing budget, Jang has had to be resourceful in attracting visitors. For example, the Arts Club operates a concierge program with 78 local hotels: in exchange for directing visitors to performances at the theatre, concierges pick up a small commission and are invited to attend shows for free. It’s a tactic borrowed from the local restaurant industry–which, incidentally, is enjoying a worldwide reputation.

So what are restaurants doing that arts and cultural workers aren’t? According to Kirby Yung, they’ve worked cooperatively rather than competitively to put Vancouver’s culinary skills on the world map. “We have a very strong community that’s very proud of cooking with local ingredients and that really works together as a community and supports each other for the greater good,” she notes. She cites the Dine Out Vancouver promotion, which just celebrated its fifth year, as a key element in creating buzz in the restaurant scene that the international community picks up on.

Could an Arts Out Vancouver work, too? According to Kirby Yung, it’s a concept that the arts community has been slow to take on. (This despite the relative success of smaller-scale collaborations like See Seven, an organization of independent theatre companies such as Rumble Productions, Ruby Slippers Theatre, and Pi Theatre that pools resources for marketing and subscriptions.) “One of the challenges with arts, because their product is so diverse and their seasons and timing so different, is coming up with a promotional concept that works for everybody,” she points out. “I would love to see the arts and cultural community come together with the city and Tourism Vancouver to develop a model that would spotlight and highlight arts and culture in Vancouver.”

Kirby Yung’s words hint at a laissez-faire attitude within Vancouver’s arts community, which Chilton says he’s trying to address. “We’re always saying government should this, and government should that. I think that day has gone,” he says, adding: “The opportunity for the arts community is to engage that community in saying, ‘We’ve got some opportunities for you here.'”

Getz, still smarting from being forced to shut down the Vancouver Recital Society’s annual Summer Combustion chamber-music festival after losing its Crofton House venue to renovations, says she’s tired of the debate over how to raise Vancouver’s cultural image. It all comes down to one thing, as far as she’s concerned. “You can put this in your article in bold, underlined, black, huge letters: until we have cultural venues that are in themselves distinct, nothing will ever happen in this goddamn city. If we’d had a concert hall, a performing-art centre on the waterfront where they’re putting another convention centre, and you’d have had a happening place that’s architecturally significant, then you could begin to talk about Vancouver as a cultural venue.”

Even the Vancouver Art Gallery–where, according to director of marketing and communications Dana Sullivant, 56 percent of the 250,000 visitors last year were from outside the GVRD–is clamouring for a bigger and better space.

A request for proposals for the old Storyeum site is expected from the city soon. Chilton says some ideas being bandied about for the potential arts experience centre include a mixed space of galleries, theatres, and artist studios. He also envisions it as a place where the public would interact with artists at work and tap into electronic databases to find out about arts and culture in the city and province, or even across the country.

Maybe, just maybe, this Storyeum sequel is just what the city needs.

Arts Features by Jessica Werb
Georgia Straight
June 21, 2007, Issue 2061, Section 5